When British cartographer George Bradshaw began to publish his collection of railway timetables and travel guidebooks in the mid-1800s, it seemed unlikely that they would inspire a 21st century television series that would extend far beyond the shores of Britain. For Victorians and Edwardians, a railway timetable was ‘a Bradshaw’ regardless of its origin and the guides were unparalleled in their detail and reliability, making them the perfect companion for journeys to destinations near and far.
Enter TV personality and former British politician Michael Portillo who, accompanied by his distinctively colourful wardrobe and Bradshaw’s original guide, has journeyed the length and breadth of Britain across eleven series of the hugely popular Great British Railway Journeys.
A self-proclaimed railfan, Portillo’s passion for locomotives has taken him global in recent years, armed with Bradshaw’s 1913 Handbook to the Chief Cities of the World. After successfully uncovering the great feats of engineering that enabled travellers to cross the continents of Europe and North America, Portillo has now turned his attention to the vast and inhospitable land of Australia in his latest series, Great Australian Railway Journeys.
Bradshaw’s 1913 handbook tells its reader that a ‘transcontinental railway is being constructed’ which, unbeknownst to him, would eventually stretch 3000 km across the very heart of Australia and act as the foundation of the modern-day Ghan railway.
Fittingly, it is the southern harbour of Port Augusta, the starting point for this original project, where Portillo’s Australian journey begins. From here, his travels take him to the outback city of Alice Springs and the Arrente people of the region, ANZAC Day in Darwin, the Sydney Harbour Bridge climb, the world’s steepest railway in Katoomba, and aboard the Indian Pacific, one of the few truly transcontinental railways in the world.
As with his previous railway journeys, it is the stories along the way that breathe life into what one could mistake for a simple overview of Australia’s railway network. Portillo’s genius lies in his ability to get to the heart of what makes each destination unique, as he presents a fresh look at often unseen parts of Australian culture. Whether it’s joining a Sikh community celebration in Woolgoolga, eating a delicious underground feast at Mungalla cattle station, or learning the art of sheep shearing at Birregurra, the series shines a light on these often overlooked parts of the continent, celebrating the essence of Bradshaw’s publications. His 1913 guide acts as an anchor for Portillo’s exploration of these locations, linking the rapid industrialisation of Britain to formative events in Australia’s history and development.
It is the combination of Portillo’s unapologetic passion for rail travel, his homage to Bradshaw’s vision and legacy, and the chance to explore one’s own backyard that makes Great Australian Railway Journeys compelling viewing for lifelong rail enthusiasts and neophytes alike.
Catch Great Australian Railway Journeys on Tuesdays at 7:30pm on SBS and at SBS On Demand.